“Ground Zero Mosque” Debate: Distraction, Or Fundamentally Important ?
Glenn Greenwald argues that the "Ground Zero Mosque" debate is about more than just a "mosque" near Ground Zero. He's right, but that also means the debate is likely to get uglier.
Over at Salon, Glenn Greenwald lays out a fairly strong argument against the idea that has been circulated among some pundits that the debate over the Park 51 project is a distraction from the issues that politicians ought to be talking about as we get closer to Election Day:
There’s been a tendency, which I find increasingly irritating, to dismiss this whole Park51 debate as some sort of petty, inconsequential August “distraction” from what Really Matters. Here’s Chuck Todd mocking the debate as a “shiny metal object alert” and lamenting “the waste of time” he believes it to be, while Katrina vanden Heuvel, in The Washington Post last week, condemned “pundits and politicians [who] are working themselves into hysteria over a mosque near Ground Zero” on the ground that it won’t determine the outcome of the midterm elections. This impulse is understandable. If you chose to narrowly define the topic of the controversy as nothing more than the Manhattan address of Park 51, then obviously it pales in importance to the unemployment crisis, our ongoing wars, and countless other political issues.
But that’s an artificially narrow and misguided way of understanding what this dispute is about. The intense animosity toward Muslims driving this campaign extends far beyond Ground Zero, and manifests in all sorts of significant and dangerous ways. In June, The New York Times reported on a vicious opposition campaign against a proposed mosque in Staten Island. Earlier this month, Associated Press documented that “Muslims trying to build houses of worship in the nation’s heartland, far from the heated fight in New York over plans for a mosque near ground zero, are running into opponents even more hostile and aggressive.” And today, The Washington Post examines anti-mosque campaigns from communities around the nation and concludes that “the intense feelings driving that debate have surfaced in communities from California to Florida in recent months, raising questions about whether public attitudes toward Muslims have shifted.”
To belittle this issue as though it’s the equivalent of the media’s August fixation on shark attacks or Chandra Levy — or, worse, to want to ignore it because it’s harmful to the Democrats’ chances in November — is profoundly irresponsible. The Park51 conflict is driven by, and reflective of, a pervasive animosity toward a religious minority — one that has serious implications for how we conduct ourselves both domestically and internationally.
The animosity and hatred so visible here extends far beyond the location of mosques or even how we treat American Muslims. So many of our national abuses, crimes and other excesses of the last decade — torture, invasions, bombings, illegal surveillance, assassinations, renditions, disappearances, etc. etc. — are grounded in endless demonization of Muslims. A citizenry will submit to such policies only if they are vested with sufficient fear of an Enemy. There are, as always, a wide array of enemies capable of producing substantial fear (the Immigrants, the Gays, and, as that video reveals, the always-reliable racial minorities), but the leading Enemy over the last decade, in American political discourse, has been, and still is, the Muslim.
That’s why the population is willing to justify virtually anything that’s done to “them” without much resistance at all, and it’s why very few people demand evidence from the Government before believing accusations that someone is a Terrorist: after all, if they’re Muslim, that’s reason enough to believe it. Hence, the repeated, mindless mantra that those in Guantanamo — or those on the Government’s “hit list” — are Terrorists even in the absence of evidence and charges, and even in the presence of ample grounds for doubting the truth of those accusations.
On some level, I agree with Greenwald completely.
Early on, it was fairly apparent to me that the debate over this project wasn’t an isolated incident and that the protests in Staten Island, Florida, California, Wisconsin, and Tennessee had nothing to do with “sensitivities” about the location of a mosque in a building that, nine years ago, was a Burlington Coat Factory in a neighborhood that includes OTB betting parlors, fast food restaurants, and a strip club. Additionally, the involvement in the anti-mosque movement of people like Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, along with the rhetoric of political figures like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Rudy Giuliani has turned what should have been a rational discussion about best to integrate this community center into the TriBeCa community into something that is, quite frankly, distasteful in the manner in which it equates average Muslim-Americans with men who flew airplanes into buildings with the hope of killing as many people as possible. That’s one of the reason I’ve decided to engage on this issue, rather than let the field of rhetorical battle be ceded to the anti-Mosque crowd
Especially, since, as yesterday’s protest in New York showed, it’s quite a troublesome crowd:
Around noon on Sunday, Michael Rose, a medical student from Brooklyn, approached some of the hundreds of protesters who had gathered near ground zero to rally against a mosque and Islamic center planned for the neighborhood.
Mr. Rose, 27, carried a handwritten sign in favor of the mosque — “Religious tolerance is what makes America great,” it read — and his presence caused a stir. An argument broke out, punctuated by angry fingers pointed in the student’s face.
One man, his cheeks red, leaned in and hissed that if the police were not present, Mr. Rose would be in danger.
Before any threats could be carried out, the police intervened, dragged Mr. Rose away from the crowd and insisted that he return to the separate area, one block away, where supporters of the project had been asked to stand.
Minutes later, as Mr. Rose was still shaking off the encounter, he turned to find the red-cheeked man back at his side. The man had followed the student up the street, and the two now stared at each other for a tense moment.
Then the man stuck out a hand and, in a terse voice, said, “I’m sorry.”
“You have a right,” he told Mr. Rose. (He would not give his name.) “I am sorry for what I said to you. I disagree with you completely, but you have a right.”
Unfortunately, not all the encounters yesterday ended so peacefully, as this video of what happened when one man who the crowd thought was Muslim entered the area:
At the same time, though, there’s no denying that, at present, those of us who think that the Park 51 project should go forward are in a distinct minority:
A lot more voters are paying attention to the plans to build a mosque near the Ground Zero site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, and they don’t like the idea.
A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 85% of U.S. voters say they are now following news stories about the mosque planned near Ground Zero. That’s a 34-point jump from a month ago when only 51% said they were following the story.
The new finding includes 58% who are following the story very closely, up from 22% in mid-July.
Now 62% oppose the building of a mosque near where the World Trade Center stood in Lower Manhattan, compared to 54% in the previous survey. Twenty-five percent (25%) favor allowing the mosque to go ahead, and 13% more are not sure.
Sixty-three percent (63%) of voters nationwide say the building of the mosque near the 9/11 site is insensitive. Just 23% disagree.
Only 22% say they are at least somewhat confident that the mosque is being built to honor those who died in the 9/11 attacks, as some have suggested. That’s down eight points from last month.
Sixty-seven percent (67%) are not confident that the mosque is intended to honor those killed by the terrorists. This includes eight percent (8%) who are Very Confident and 41% who are Not At All Confident.
Still, just 49% say the mosque issue is at least somewhat important in terms of how they will vote, with 27% who say it is Very Important. Forty-six percent (46%) view the mosque as unimportant to their vote, including 20% who say it is Not At All Important.
On top of that, of course, we’ve got other polls which indicate that barely half of Americans agree with the idea that, senstitivity issues aside, Muslims have a right to build a mosque “near Ground Zero,” and a substantial plurality, though not a majority, seem to doubt that they have the right to build a mosque anywhere in the country. So, we’ve engaged in this debate for several weeks now and, so far, it seems to be the side that Greenwald (and I) disagree with that’s winning the battle for public opinion.
That’s not entirely surprising, for reasons I discussed last week:
If you were to base your opinion on Islam solely on what is portrayed on Fox News and on radio shows hosted by people like Sean Hannity, then it’s not surprising that you’d be opposed to not just to construction of a community center and mosque in Lower Manhattan, but any mosque anywhere. It is, quite simply, ignorance fueled by demonization. I would submit that if some of these people had actual Muslim neighbors or co-workers, their opinions about the religion, and the rights of its adherents, would be much, much different.
And that, I think, is part of the problem that Muslims in America face. They are a very small part of the population — somewhere between 1.3 million and 7 million people depending on whose numbers you go by — but they are part of a religion of 1.6 billion people worldwide that is, because of it’s radical elements, suspicious to some people. It’s a PR problem, but one made more difficult by the fact that it’s very unlikely that most Americans will know much about Islam other than what they see on television from the Middle East, and most of that, quite honestly, isn’t very good (which is, incidentally, why many of the Muslims in America are here rather than there). When it comes to Islam, Americans suffer from a lack of knowledge about everything other than it’s most extreme and radical elements, and until that changes I’m afraid that the public’s attitudes about Islam are going to remain as negative as they are today.
So, I agree with Greenwald that there are important issue implicated in this debate that go far beyond whether or not an Islamic Community Center should be built two blocks from the site of the September 11th attacks. Unfortunately, I don’t think either one of us is going to like the direction that debate is likely to take, at least in the short term.